Dominance, Prestige, and Propriety
Ways of obtaining conformity
Anthropologist Joseph Henrich emphasizes the distinction between a dominance hierarchy and a prestige hierarchy. A dominance hierarchy is enforced by the threat of physical force. A prestige hierarchy is obtained by demonstrating skills that other wish to imitate. People are drawn to prestige voluntarily, out of respect. They accept dominance grudgingly, out of fear.
As humans, we coordinate, sometimes in very large groups. This is not because we are naturally nice. We are closely related to chimpanzees, which are naturally violent.offers further thoughts on human learning and coordination. He points out that we are an especially pro-active species when it comes to violence. Consider the planning and coordination involved in engaging in war.
On the other hand, we are relatively less re-active with regard to violence. Compared with chimps, we are less likely to react violently when bothered by other members of our species.
One speculative theory is that we are relatively restrained in our reaction to other humans because we self-domesticated. Warby suggests that the most violent males were killed off by coalitions of less-violent humans, gradually taking some of the propensity for reactive violence out of the human gene pool.
In general, I think of prestige hierarchies as good and dominance hierarchies as bad. A prestige hierarchy induces people to compete by demonstrating skills that are useful, or at least entertaining. A dominance hierarchy induces people to compete by engaging in violence.
In addition to dominance and prestige, Warby adds a third mode of social influence.
The other is propriety: status through following and exemplifying norms. A cooperative, group-living species needs to be able to both encourage, and sort, competence and to have attention paid to group cohesion. Women have tended to be particularly concerned with propriety, for stronger group cohesion generally better protects them and their children.
Suppose that a society rewards people who follow its norms and punishes people who violate its norms. This will cause more people to follow norms. I have suggested that this is what creates a high-trust, high-accountability society.
Propriety may or may not involve a hierarchy. Perhaps a hierarchy of priests will determine proper behavior. Or perhaps norms will emerge from the values articulated by various people within the society.
It can be difficult to observe directly whether someone reliably follows norms. Often, we rely on signals, such as outward signs of religious observance. This gives rise to a a game, in which norm violators try to signal that they are good, and others try to detect this sort of deception. Consider the various tactics that Sam Bankman-Fried used to convince people that he was an honorable person.
This is also true, but to a lesser extent, with prestige. People rely on signals, such as credentials, and these can either be faked or abused.
Over time, if people get better at falsely signaling propriety (or prestige( and the detection systems fail to keep pace, then these social mechanisms can break down. The group loses some of its ability to cooperate, as distrust sets in.
Warby warns that
Propriety also can shade into dominance. Especially if sanctions are to be invoked against those who are seen to act against propriety.
This is probably in the eye of the beholder. Is a social sanction against promiscuity a form of dominance? Is a social sanction against talking about differences between males and females a form of dominance?
Warby argues that the social justice movement is mostly about dominance.
If social justice is about achieving better outcomes, then that is something one can bargain over. If social justice is for its proponents (consciously or unconsciously) a status-and-social-leverage strategy, then any concession just feeds the strategy. The strategy will then continue as long as it works.
…Again and again, we observe that once something is declared to be a matter of social justice, opposition to such a claim becomes illegitimate. This is not a bargaining-to-make-things-better strategy. This is a social dominance strategy.
When we consider the realms of science and academia, our first thought is that is these are prestige hierarchies, or they ought to be. As Jonathan Rauch (The Constitution of Knowledge) and others have argued, we need a spirit of open inquiry in which better reasoning raises one’s prestige. But in recent years, I have observed increased use of dominance moves, in which dissent is suppressed. “Follow the science” is a dominance move. Instead, we should attach prestige to those who try to use the scientific method.
I think that the concepts of dominance, prestige, and propriety are useful, even though the distinctions among them may not be bright lines. I think that when our intuition tells us that people are relying on dominance moves, we should be wary. When people are gaming our systems of propriety or prestige, we should be very concerned. Many of us see the social justice movement as engaging in dominance moves and we see the important system of academia falling victim to extensive gaming.
People and ways of thinking that I value are not doing as well as I would like. Those who are bringing them down are people who want more respect than I believe they deserve. The status contest has lost the plot of focusing on earned prestige. Asputs it,
those who cannot compete on ability compete on conformity
This essay is part of a series on human interdependence.